On Monday, July 29, 2019, President Donald Trump signed an act into law extending the benefits of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). The bill, which passed through both chambers of Congress by an overwhelming majority, now ensures that the federal funds used to compensate victims of the 9/11 terror attacks will not out of money for the foreseeable future.
From the Rose Garden signing ceremony, which was held in honor of over 200 victims affected by 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Trump said:
“Today we come together as one nation to support our September 11 heroes, to care for their families and to renew our eternal vow, never ever forget…. Over the last two decades, you have endured hardship with amazing grace and incredible grit…. You lift up our communities and you remind us what it means to all stand united, one nation under God. Today we strive to fulfill our sacred duty to you.”
As it was, the 9/11 VCF was due to run out of money in 2020, leaving thousands of 9/11 victims and their families in the lurch, without any conceivable way to pay mounting medical bills without plummeting into debt.
The dwindling VCF funds had poured through the $7.4 Billion that had been allocated previously. To deal with the quickly disappearing funds, VCF administrators had planned to slash payments to victims by as much as 70% – an unsustainable solution to a major problem.
Now authorized until the year 2090, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the extension will cost roughly $1.2 Billion per year or around $10 Billion over the course of the next 10 years.
9/11 Fund-Extension Bill Faced an Uncertain Future
Though the House cleared the bill in a 402-12 vote on July 12, and the Senate followed shortly thereafter with a 97-2 vote on July 23, it seemed for a long time uncertain whether or not the VCF would actually reach the House and Senate floors, let alone receive an extension in federal funding.
Ultimately, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) were the only 2 senators to vote against the measure.
In spite of the overwhelming vote in favor, the bill had faced an uphill battle, and it took a long time and a lot of lobbying to finally bring the bill to a vote before Congress’s summer recess begins on Aug. 2. On delaying and voting against the bill, Republican Sens. Paul and Lee cited budgetary concerns, and the country’s growing debt.
In order to catalyze Congress into taking action on the VCF, Ground Zero workers and their families were essentially forced to testify yet again before Congress — a repeat of the congressional hearings that had only just taken place 4 years ago when the funds were previously up for re-authorization in 2015.
In an emotional hearing led by former “Daily Show” host and New Yorker Jon Stewart and former NYPD detective Luis Alvarez, 9/11 first responders urged Congress to act now. In an emotional plea to the House Judiciary Committee, Alvarez said,
“You made me come down here [to Capitol Hill] the day before my 69th round of chemo, and I’m going to make sure that you never forget to take care of the 9/11 responders…. Now that 9/11 illnesses have taken so many of us, we are all worried about our children and spouses and our families if we are not here.”
Alvarez died on June 29, only 2 weeks after his powerful testimony, at the age of 53. His cause of death was 9/11-related colorectal cancer.
Jon Stewart Uses His Celebrity for 9/11 Victim Advocacy
Aware that his popularity as a beloved American comedian draws media eyes and public attention, Stewart has for years leveraged his celebrity to fight on behalf of 9/11 first responders — his primary mission since leaving the late-night satirical news program “The Daily Show.”
Impassioned testimony from Stewart at the Congressional hearing — a testimony that soon went viral — in part led to the bill’s passing the House Judiciary Committee the very next day. “I’m angry,” Stewart said, speaking frankly to the committee,
“And you should be too. Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of. This hearing should be flipped. These men and women should be up on that stage and Congress should be down here answering their questions as to why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long.”
Stewart, who could not attend the Rose Garden ceremony at which the reauthorization of the VCF was signed, nonetheless played a vital role in orchestrating its ultimate congressional and presidential approval.
9/11 Responders Still Need Our Help
In the days following the collapse of the twin towers, brave men and women rushed to Ground Zero to help dig through the rubble in order to free survivors who were buried, trapped, or needed medical attention.
These first responders, many of whom worked for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and the New York City Police Department (NYPD), showed their bravery and selflessness during a time of crisis when the nation was shocked and reeling.
Soon after the buildings had fallen, toxic dust plumed upward, blanketing all of lower Manhattan. This toxic dust contained smoke, lethal chemicals, and debris, including traces and particles of arsenic, fiberglass, lead, and asbestos — roughly 400 tons of it. Asbestos was used in the construction of the World Trade Center towers in insulation and fireproofing materials.
According to a World Trade Center Health Panel report, around 410,000 people were exposed to this toxic dust during the aftermath of the attacks. Workers assigned to the cleanup experienced prolonged exposure to toxic dust, including asbestos, over a series of months.
As a result, recent data from May 2019 show that more than 12,500 cases of 9/11-related cancer have already been diagnosed and that thousands more diagnoses are on their way. Among the illnesses are upper and lower respiratory issues, gastrointestinal problems, musculoskeletal disorders, and mental health conditions. Mesothelioma, a cancer caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos, is also a major health concern.
To date, the fund has paid out $5 Billion to around 21,000 sick or dying men and women. Thanks to indefinite reauthorization of the 9/11 VCF, future claimants affected by 9/11-related illnesses will no longer need to worry about how they will cover medical costs.
John Feal, a former construction worker who helped with the 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts, played a large role in the bill’s passing as well. But for him, someone who has watched hundreds of friends die from diseases linked to 9/11, the bill’s authorization was bittersweet.
“We’re not celebrating, we’re not spiking a football,” he said. “Too many people are dying or have died.”
The pledge to fight for 9/11 victims has not ended. It will continue for as long as they need our help.